It was not Ye Shiwen’s winning time that aroused John Leonard’s suspicion, or even her age. The 16-year-old Ye swam the final of the 400m individual medley (IM) in a new world record of 4min 28.43sec, seven seconds faster than she had gone in the 2011 World Championship final. Leonard, an authority on swimming who has been executive director of the World Association of Swimming Coaches since 1989, believes that was a plausible, if difficult, improvement to make in 12 months. No, what got Leonard was the ease and speed with which Ye swam the last 100m. After 300m of butterfly, back and breaststroke, Ye was eight-tenths of a second behind the USA’s Elizabeth Beisel. But 100m of freestyle later, Ye was almost three seconds ahead of her. One of the most remarkable facts of these Games is that Ye’s time for her final length was quicker than that of Ryan Lochte, who won the men’s IM in the second-fastest time in history.
For Leonard it brought back “awful memories” of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Ireland’s Michelle Smith, now De Bruin, won three gold medals in the pool only to be banned for doping offences two years later. Smith faced down direct accusations from her US rival Janet Evans at those Olympics. In 2012 Ye has been confronted with questions by the press, but until Leonard spoke out no one inside the sport was willing to put their doubts on the record. “Unbelievable” was the word many people, including the 2009 world champion in the 200m medley, Ariana Kukors, used to describe Ye’s swim. Whether they were punctuating it with an exclamation mark or a question mark was left to the journalists to interpret.
Ye did not come from nowhere. She won the 200m IM title at the 2011 World Championships, when she was just 15. “I know she is a good freestyle swimmer,” said Australia’s Stephanie Rice, who won gold in both medley events at the Beijing Olympics. “I was next to her at Worlds, in the 200m IM last year and she came home over the top of me in that freestyle leg, and I am not exactly bad myself.”
For the wider public, and perhaps many people in the sport as well, it is a matter of debate and personal opinion as to whether Ye deserves the benefit of the doubt or not. There is no evidence to condemn her other than her own brilliance, and it is hard to judge a 16-year-old girl on the basis of that alone. Instinctively, many fans will want to believe in her talent. Others, scarred by years of doping revelations across a range of sports, would say that view is naive. Ye could simply be the shining light of the first products of the heavy investment the Chinese made in the sport before the Beijing Olympics. Their squad here includes eight girls aged 17 or under.
But Leonard, who has decades worth of knowledge and experience and has been lauded for his firm anti-doping stance in the past, believes it is certainly a question that needs to be asked. These are not the sour grapes of a sore rival, but the concerns of an expert who has enormous integrity on anti-doping within the swimming community. He made a point of praising Ye’s teammate Sun Yang, who won three freestyle gold medals in the 2011 World Championships, and has already won the 400m freestyle title here in London. Sun’s curve of improvement, Leonard reckons, “is well within the trajectory of the sport”.
“If you look at the woman in question, and her biomechanics in the heats, she has a steady, moderately slow, six-beat kick,” Leonard said, referring to the number of kicks Ye takes with each arm stroke. “All of a sudden in the Olympic final she turned it up to an eight-beat kick, which any coach will tell you is very difficult to maintain for 25m, much less 100m.”
Ross Tucker, a sport scientist who based a large part of his PhD on pacing strategies in sport – or how athletes reserve enough energy to finish an event strongly – has also voiced his discomfort, while stressing that nothing had been proven against Ye. “Don’t shy away from the question just because it’s politically incorrect,” Tucker writes his blog the Science of Sport. “Look where that got sport before.”
Tucker points out that, on average, female medley swimmers finish the 400m IM in a freestyle time that is between “18% and 23% slower” than that of a top 100m freestyler. But Ye’s leg was about 10% off the times set by the best 100m freestyle swimmers. “The conclusion that I would draw from this,” Tucker writes, “is that her 100m freestyle leg is disproportionately fast not only by comparison to Lochte, but also to her peers, and to the best 100m freestyle swimmers.” That, Tucker says, is too big a gap. “Based on everything we know about performance and pacing. I suspect that Shiwen would probably be two or more seconds faster if she went out harder and pushed to the point of fatigue.”
It would make more sense, Tucker suggests, for Ye to swim faster over the first three legs and trade that improvement off for a slight loss of time in the final 100m. As Leonard said, “to swim three other splits at the rate that she did, which was quite ordinary for elite competition, and then unleash a historic anomaly, it is just not right”.
“Her first 300m was an extremely conservative effort,” concluded Tucker. “The simple question is: ‘Under what circumstances does a female have the capacity to finish a race as fast as a male?’” It is the same question that is being asked by Leonard, only in a different way. “If it is a truly clean swim it is probably one of the most magnificent swims in history,” Leonard said. “But at this point, I would call it unbelievable.” This time, there was no doubt how he meant it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010